Wednesday, December 23, 2020

December 23 The Astonishing Depths of the New Testament Roots of Democracy

Reason #23 The New Testament Roots of Democracy

The facts of history strongly indicate that the Christian faith deserves credit for being the true impetus behind our current conceptions of democracy.

Most people today appreciate the utter importance of democracy—allowing every person to have an equal say in the way society functions.  The premise of democracy just seems obvious to us in modern times. Giving potential victims and their oppressors an equal vote in matters that affect the pursuit of happiness will keep the would-be victims from having their human rights violated and the would-be oppressors from executing their self-serving schemes. When seen against the entire backdrop of human history, however, this principle of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” is actually both rare and new.

Chiefdom, monarchy, and tyranny seem to be the default settings of human government, and virtually all the governance we see in historical times was enjoyed by warrior chiefs and kings who helped themselves to the best spoils of what their societies could offer. And although we admire the early democratic policies of Athens and Rome, these democracies actually excluded huge portions of their populations who were slaves and non-citizen residents. Additionally, because they had no Constitutions to set boundaries on their liberties, the self-interested majorities in Athens and Rome were free to trample the human rights of minorities (and they routinely did).

All true human rights-based democracies owe their existence, not to Athens or Rome, but to the New Testament. This is because Jesus taught His followers that an entire congregation should be called upon to settle disputed matters—to make decisions collectively, as a group, and not to rely on leaders alone for direction (Matthew 18:17-18).1 And this explains why the first Christians chose their first ministers by consensus, a policy they learned from Jesus and which served them very well (Acts 6:3-5).2 But this was not the way the chiefs and kings around them did things.

Even in Britain, before the 1500s, popular elections were unheard of. After all, Britain was still a firmly entrenched monarchy, and the law-making role of parliament was quite limited and unclear. But during the back-to-the-New-Testament fervor of the Puritan Reformation, Christians began to choose their pastors by vote. This was considered a radical idea by most of their Church of England brethren who opposed it. We have the account from as early as 1634, for example, of a Puritan congregation in the Netherlands that met to vote on a new minister. The emcee of the meeting noted the vote:  “'I see the men choose him, but what do the women do?' Hereupon the women lift up their hands too."

It was in the U.S. that true democracy first spread beyond the church. In 1620, the Puritan pilgrims aboard the Mayflower created and signed, with no monarch’s input or consent, a pledge of self-governance and cooperation, the Mayflower Compact. They also elected John Carver to be their governor, choosing him just as they had chosen their pastors back home, by the voice of the congregation. One historian referred to this as “the first experiment in consensual government in Western history between individuals with one another, and not with a monarch.”

By 1632 when Puritan investors rose to leadership in the Massachusetts Bay Company (forerunner to the city of Boston), the governor, the deputy, and the assistants were all chosen by election.

Even as late as the 1780s, only 20 percent of the adult males in Britain were permitted to vote, while 55 percent were voting in the newly formed United States. In fact, as late as the 1790s, the highly respected parliamentarian Edmund Burke was acting as the spokesperson for a substantial number of British politicians and thinkers who opposed democracy as a dangerous and oppressive form of government.

In our current age of anti-Christian sentiment, critics may be reluctant to admit that, actually, it was not Athens, or Rome, or even Britain, that brought the world democracy as we know and revere it today—democracy under a Constitution of human rights. It was in fact the founder of the Christian faith and the people who followed His instructions who handed us this remarkable gift, and we are all deeply indebted to them for it.

The facts of history strongly indicate that the Christian faith deserves credit for being the true impetus behind our current conceptions of democracy.


1 Matthew 18:17 Tell it to the congregation: but if he refuses to hear the congregation, let him be to you as a Gentile…1Whatever you judge on earth shall be confirmed in heaven.

2 Acts 6:3 Brothers, pick out from among you seven men…whom we may appoint over this business.... And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose...

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